Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 3 | WebReference

Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn. By Sybex | 3

Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People, Chapter 3: What to Learn.

Let’s Get Physics-al

Having a sense of physics and how objects move in relation to each other and the world can help you make the transition into animating not just effects, but objects and even character motion. We all have an inate sense of the world of motion around us. As an audience member, you can see mistakes or inconsistencies in animated motion very easily because you’ve been an observer of natural movement your entire life.

However, creating that motion as an animator is much more difficult. Getting a good understanding of the basic tenants of physics will really help your animation, and therefore your chances of landing work. If you can distance yourself from your animation and watch it as an objective member of an audience (as opposed to subjectively watching your own work), you’ll see areas you can improve upon immediately. Hey, we’re not ragging on your work, but it’s true. If you have even a base understanding of physics, you’ll be much better equipped to translate problems you see into tenable, quantitative solutions.

Computer Science and Engineering

If you want to be a game programmer, pipeline engineer, or even a shader writer (those who write the mathematical code controlling the way exotic surfaces, such as oil on water, molten glass, or shimmering fish skin, are rendered) you’ll need a degree in computer science or equivalent experience. This prepares you for the logic of programming and gives you the essential technical skills, such as programming in C and C++, Perl, Python, and so on.

Here Andrew Pearce talks about how a programmer can use his or her skills to create tools for CG creation, and how knowing how that kind of programming works can help you as an artist understand the world of CG:

To write a basic renderer is not that hard. To write a raytracer is not that hard. Writing a fast one, writing one that does all the things it needs to do, like motion blur, depth of field, that’s harder. But write a basic ray tracer—people have written a basic ray tracer on a business card, not a great one, not a fast one, but a ray tracer—just to understand the problems that are encountered in rendering. Because if you’re going into 3D that’s the end result…It’s going to make you understand the hierarchy of the scene, how to decompose that, how to put objects in the right place, it’s going to teach you world space versus object space versus camera space, how textures are applied and filtered, how pixels are filtered, and how antialiasing is done, and all that stuff is going to be very, very important.


Project and Team Management

If you’re an undergraduate art student, the odds are slim that you’re going to need a great deal of management skills in your first job. Any project management you do need to perform, as with a heavy school load, will primarily be an exercise in time management. But if you’re switching jobs and hoping to land a position with more responsibility (and perhaps a bigger paycheck) there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to take on a more formal management role. In this case, it will serve you well to have some training in, or at least to study, basic management. This will include issues such as directing employees, managing schedules, and preparing budgets. Much of management is common sense applied to everyday problems, but sometimes solutions aren’t so obvious. Basic training in management can help you understand what you need to accomplish in this role, as Andrew Pearce points out:

Take at least some course in how to manage people. Because as much as that’s against our totally antisocial nature, being engineers, it is of paramount importance to understand that different individuals need to be treated differently and that your behavior—your natural behavior—is probably not good management style. That’s probably one of the hardest things that I fight against, is know your own nature. Your job as a manager is not to control the people who are reporting to you. It’s to guide and set priorities and to make sure that they are enabled to do their job, that you are removing obstacles for them.



Management in this industry requires finely honed people skills, since you’re apt to run into a wide variety of personalities in the profession. There is a bit of truth to the cliché that creative people in Hollywood and the games biz are a bit outside the mainstream. Being a highly creative person in one of the toughest industries on our blue and green little planet is not easy. It’s a tough, demanding business, and requires a strong stomach and an unbendable will. To that end we say, it takes all kinds!

As a manager of artists and a conduit of information from supervisors, directors, and clients, you have the unenviable task of delegating and corralling a group of people who have strong personalities and stronger opinions. That takes stamina, perseverance, and an ability to politic. All those folks who rough it for a month on the CBS show Survivor would be the first ones voted out of the production studio.


3D Graphics Skills

Even though a fundamental education in art or engineering will take you further in this business than a mastery of any one 3D program, this is a book about 3D and effects, so let’s discuss the actual 3D skills that are at the heart of 3D graphics jobs. There are hundreds of specific things you can learn, so we’ll leave the details to other books, but the 3D basics include:


3D modeling is the creation of the wireframe representations of 3D objects. These can be as simple as a box representing a room or as complex as a human character with every detail, down to fingernails and eyelashes, faithfully represented. For every 3D software package, there are tens or even hundreds of modeling tools specialized for creating various types of shapes, but there are essentially three modeling technologies in widespread use today: polygonal, NURBS, and subdivision surfaces (Figure 3.5).

Figure 3.5 Three heads are better than one. The same head shown (left to right) in NURBS, subdivision (sub-D) surfaces, and polygons. Note that the NURBS model still needs a lot of rebuilding to get the mesh down to a manageable size; the sub-D surface is almost automatically clean and has dialable resolution; the polygon surface is lightweight but coarse

Games use polygonal models exclusively. A polygon mesh, in its simplest form, is made of nothing but triangles. To add more resolution or detail to a model, you simply use smaller triangles. All 3D rendering hardware uses triangulated meshes as its ultimate data format, so this is the fastest and most efficient way to deliver geometry to a game. Although triangle meshes are very simple, working with them is not. For example, there’s nothing particularly intuitive about defining the shape of a human with a bunch of triangles. This is especially true when you have to carefully limit the total number of polygons in a mesh, as you do in a real-time 3D game. Probably the most essential skill to building 3D models in polygons is learning to make the most of the available polygon budget and to optimize the appearance of low-poly surfaces to make the most of what you’ve got.

For many years, NURBS (nonuniform rational b-splines) were considered the standard modeling format for film—and in many studios, they still are. NURBS excel in their capability to accurately define curves and surfaces containing complex compound curves. NURBS are also very intuitive for texture mapping. The down side to NURBS is that they’re a digital equivalent of rubber sheets. While you can stitch multiple sheets together to make surfaces that are too complicated to represent with a single sheet, it’s sometimes impossible to hide these stitched edges, particularly if the surface goes through dramatic deformations. Although to some extent NURBS are resolution independent—meaning you can view them from any distance and still see a smooth, unfaceted skin—in practice, NURBS surfaces are displayed using approximation, which can break down, showing holes or seams when you get too close.

Subdivision (sub-D) surfaces are the latest development in modeling methods used in games, television, and films. They work by fitting a smooth NURBS-like surface to a coarse polygonal cage. This lets you model with polygons to generate realistic, seamless surfaces that avoid many of the pitfalls of NURBS, while keeping the ability to create organic shapes typical of NURBS. Studios have been relying on sub-Ds for some time, but using them to model real-world objects is a relatively novel technique. Increasingly, modelers use sub-Ds to create characters and other models for real-time games because the sub-Ds let them produce high-res models for prerendered artwork and generating normal maps, as well as low-res polygonal models for in-engine rendering. These sub-D models can also be easily converted back to polygon models for high or low poly count use.

Here’s what Brian Friesinger of ESC Entertainment had to say when we asked him if subdivision surfaces modeling tool is the modeling tool of the future:

It depends on who you ask; if you ask me, yeah. For these films, everything is sub-D or poly. NURBS, while they have strengths, have a lot of limitations, and in my opinion, they’re very dated. I prefer sub-Ds for everything. The argument against sub-Ds is, it’s very hard to get a good UV map on them for texturing. We’ve got good techniques at ESC to do that. I’ve come up with a lot of techniques to do that, and they work really well. When you see the film [The Matrix Reloaded], hopefully you’ll decide that, too. I would always prefer sub-Ds over NURBS. I started out as a NURBS modeler. As soon as I discovered sub-Ds, I said this is way cooler, way better…

If it’s going to be sitting there and just looking pretty from a distance, just go with polys. The cool thing about sub-Ds is their dialable resolution. I use sub-Ds on architecture if we’re going to wreck it, if I’m going to twist the metal, twist the hell out of it, sub-Ds hold up so good. You can just dial the resolution and really get that twisted metal look. You can do a lot of stuff on-the-fly. NURBS require a lot of planning, and sometimes it will lock you into a situation. Somebody comes by and says we need you to do this now. And you didn’t build it to do that….


As a modeler in games, you’ll need to know polygonal modeling techniques, and in many environments, you’ll also need to know techniques for using NURBS or subdivision surfaces for creating high-resolution models. In addition, game modelers need a solid understanding of UV mapping techniques. In high-detail environments such as television or film, chances are you’ll be using NURBS, subdivision surfaces and polygons almost interchangeably. The main objective is to create very realistic, believable surfaces.

Created: March 27, 2003
Revised: April 9, 2004